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Linda Wyn - The Balancing Act – Challenges for Leadership in FE

Linda Wyn'Change' is a very familiar word to all involved in leadership roles within the Welsh Further Education sector in recent years. Indeed, it could be said that flexibility has been the hallmark of the sector for the past two decades. Since the incorporation of FE colleges in 1993, when colleges were released from the shackles of local authorities, we have been through periods of tremendous change. Growth and responsiveness became the two key priorities for the sector as FE was recognised not only a provider of vocational education for school leavers, but also as a key player both in supporting economic growth and helping to tackle deprivation and economic inactivity.

As the funding regime put in place following incorporation rewarded growth, we were soon developing provision for our core customers in order to ensure that our young people were equipped with a wide range of “additional” qualifications, attractive to employers. At the same time, colleges substantially increased their employer customer base, developing discrete, tailor-made short course provision as well as a range of new apprenticeship programmes. Partnerships developed with a wide range of community groups when it was seen that FE colleges had the expertise and infrastructure to help the unemployed gain the skills needed to help them get back into the workplace.

The level of funding received by colleges allowed for investment in development of new provision, new ideas were supported and a degree of risk taking was tolerated and even encouraged. In many colleges the leadership style was often described as “visionary” i  where innovation and a “go-getting” approach were rewarded by recognition and promotion.

How times have changed. It could be argued that, for leaders of FE colleges, focus on growth and innovation have been replaced in recent years by two alternative priorities i.e. the imperative to continuously drive up quality standards and the necessity for efficiency. Such changes will, inevitably, impact on leadership styles and behaviours as leaders in FE are now faced with the daily dilemma of juggling conflicting priorities. The age-old balancing act of continuing to improve quality standards whilst meeting our budgetary targets has taken on a sharp new focus.

The increase in external transparency and scrutiny has led us to place greater importance on ensuring that our performance data and systems portray the institution in the best possible light. In order succeed, not only must we have robust information systems, but also compliant staff who adhere to our administrative processes. Quality systems must be diligently applied, not only to bring about the desired performance improvements, but also to in order to ensure that we are “Estyn ready” at all times.

Likewise, with the increasing pressures placed on our budgets in light of the stringent funding cuts of recent years, financial monitoring has made its way to the top of our agendas. Overspends are carefully nipped in the bud and any additional or unplanned expenditure has to be cautiously justified.

It could be argued that leadership focus has made a shift from horizontal to vertical accountability. Whereas FE leaders have proudly claimed to promote a culture which places the learner first or “at the heart of what we do”, there is a danger that accountability may now be shifting away from our customers and stakeholders to our governors and paymasters. We are under more and more pressure not only to reassure our governing bodies that we are financially sustainable but we also need to justify any changes to our curriculum in terms of responsiveness and value for money to the Welsh Government.

Within such a changed climate, leadership styles will have inexorably shifted in relation to the ways in which staff and systems are led and managed. Balancing the need for compliance with that of creativity, investment in resources with budgetary constraints and increased staff workload with the flexibility to innovate are all tensions which have to be resolved on a regular basis.

Democratic leadership styles, which, in the past, allowed middle managers to enjoy a great degree of autonomy, may now appear to be too risky. Where previously FE leaders prided themselves in possessing a transformational leadership style ii which inspired others and encouraged innovative thinking and action, they may now find themselves slipping into transactional mode. Focus on quality monitoring and management by exception clearly have their place in bringing all provision up to acceptable standards, but such a focus could be at the cost of nurturing innovation and creativity. The challenge for leaders is to get the balance right once again.

Leadership style will inevitably impact on systems of intrinsic rewards and what is valued by the organisation. In addition, our key performance indicators will determine who comes out on top. Those managers perceived as high performers will, inevitably, have delivered high success rates, learner satisfaction and also provided value for money. However, should we not also be rewarding those who have developed new ways of working, innovated with their teaching and learning methods, those who have come up with new ideas and have helped to inspire and motivate our learners? Our ability to innovate is what has made our sector great, so let’s put it back on the agenda.

Linda Wyn

Linda has worked within the Further Education in Wales since 1993 holding a number of senior management posts. In her current post she is Executive Director, Academic Services for Grwp Llandrillo Menai and Principal of Coleg Meirion Dwyfor.

Linda formerly served as a Board member of the General Teaching Council (Wales) and of ACCAC. She is as an Independent Director and Vice-Chair of y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and has recently completed her term of office on the Ministerial Advisory Panel for the Welsh-medium Education Strategy.

i Goleman, Daniel, (2000) “Leadership that gets results” Harvard Business Review (March)
ii Burns J.M (1978) “Leadership” New York, Harper Row